Dave Chappelle’s 16-minute Saturday Night Live monologue was the complete Chappelle experience. It’s honestly an intimidating task to even try to absorb and put together cogent thoughts about something so layered and massive.
So, let’s start with the Klan joke.
Chappelle opened with jokes about his own career, including stories about his White neighbors and his royalty structure. (Somehow he’s not earning anything from HBO and Netflix now syndicating Chappelle’s Show?!)
Centering himself and his fame has been a feature in Chappelle’s stand-ups for the past decade — with mixed results. At the beginning of the monologue, he eased us into the belief that he was going to continue talking about himself. But without so much as a transition, he hit us with a joke about how White people should just wear Klan costumes to Walmart to make everyone feel safe. To call it a punch line doesn’t do the joke justice. It was an uppercut that he’d spent five minutes building up.
The joke was a commentary on the intersection between racism and anti-maskers, highlighting the irony that it’s the Klan mask that’s actually unnecessary as we can generally already tell who wears one of those. And it reminded us how we’re accustomed to the mask-less racism in America.
This joke, from the tee-up to the hit for the rafters, is the classic Chappelle masterpiece. It reminds us why he is on the Mount Rushmore of comedians.
Watching Dave Chappelle over the past few years has been a frustrating experience to say the least. He spent so much of his time antagonizing the LGBT community with lazy jokes as some sort of crusade against cancel culture. Not only has it harmed a community that already faces the worst we can do to others, he’s also often sullying his craft with jokes that just aren’t funny.
The joke was a commentary on the intersection between racism and anti-maskers, highlighting the irony that it’s the Klan mask that’s actually unnecessary as we can generally already tell who wears one of those.
This go-round, he lobs (valid) criticism toward Deborah Birx, MD, who tucked her science in order to not openly criticize the president. But the punch line to that joke? She’s the reason women should make less than men.
And this clunker of a bit was delivered on the same day that the first Black woman was voted into the White House. Chapelle didn’t even seem to have his heart in the joke, speeding past it as if he was deciding if it should be cut as he was saying it. As if he knew he had better material to get to.
It could’ve been worse. And for a second, it was, when he threw in a head-scratcher joke comparing Trump and Covid-19 and Freddie Mercury and AIDS.
But he didn’t go fully into his bag of low-hanging fruit and instead poured his soul into the state of the country in the wake of the Trump presidency.
Dave Chappelle called Trump’s selfishness a feature of White maleness. He thanked Covid for keeping “murderous Whites” off of the street and then clowned the president of the United States for contracting a life-threatening disease. He called poor White people welfare queens. The crowd groaned as much as they laughed and made those noises you make in church when your preacher gets to his point. And yet, at some moments, they were silent. Was the joke thudding or was the audience uncomfortable? It depends on who was hearing it.
Chapelle wasn’t just out there giving a sermon, though. An SNL monologue is only as successful as it is funny. And that, he did accomplish. He laid out the absurdity of Trump’s cures for Covid. He unloaded the chopper on Chris Christie’s Covid experience in what was maybe the funniest bit of the entire stand-up. Sometimes it was hard to tell when he was going from prepared jokes to just flying off the cuff, which has always been part of Chappelle’s charm.
But every single moment of the stand-up was calculated. His whole monologue was a look at what masks actually mean in America, which is a commentary on what identity means in the United States. From the idea of Klan masks as unnecessary markers of racial affiliations to the fact that Black people can’t take off their own masks.
In one of his more edgy bits, he describes a world where Whites need to look at life through “n***a eyes.” Black folks already know what it’s like to feel you’re wearing a mask that smothers or what it feels like to wear a police uniform with a constant target on your back.
This time, Chappelle wasn’t the reactionary curmudgeon who thinks insulting trans people is part of his calling to defend the sanctity of comedy. He wasn’t (completely) forcing himself into a corner of stale cancel culture jokes. He was in the moment. He was a hurricane of conflicting thoughts and conviction that reflects how so many of us have felt over the past week. Conflicted over partying for an American political system. Conflicted about how good to feel while 70 million people still voted for Trump. Hell, I’m conflicted about even writing about Dave Chappelle again.
It’s hard to even know what to make of Chappelle anymore. I just know that for 16 minutes, I felt better than I felt before the monologue started. But now, what lies ahead is the work of figuring out exactly what it all means and what to take away from it all going forward. In that way, Chappelle did what he has always done: reflected the current state of America as well as anyone alive.